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Tesei decision sign of a changed Greenwich

February 2, 2019

As Peter Tesei took the podium to give his victory speech on election night 2017, he spoke of winning to a crowd that had just suffered a historic defeat: For the first time ever, voters had given Democrats control of the powerful Board of Estimate and Taxation. Suddenly, solidly Republican Greenwich was not quite so solid.

It had to be an awkward moment for the man who had done nothing but win elections since he was 18 when he first ran for a seat in the Representative Town Meeting. While he spoke of victory and his accomplishments to the audience at the Milbrook Club that night, his inner voice had to be speaking to a different reality.

Local Republicans see control of town government as their birth right; close elections do not sit well with that crowd. Tesei had won several elections with 70 percent or more of the vote, so his office in Town Hall seemed to be his for as long as he wanted. And, in the ultimate bow to the Cos Cob Republican’s electoral chops, the leader of the Democratic Town Committee had said he would be fine with Tesei running unopposed in 2017.

But a Democratic candidate did step forward: Sandy Litvack, a corporate lawyer and executive with no name recognition and no experience in local government or politics. Tesei won 54 percent of the vote, which in most towns would be viewed as a convincing victory. In Greenwich, it was seen as a nail biter. On election night, Tesei knew better than anyone that his was a weak win. Instead of celebrating the longest winning streak in town history, local Republicans spent the next few weeks speculating about Tesei’s political future. Some said then that he would not be able to win his own party’s nomination in 2019.

Tesei on Friday announced that he would not seek re-election. It was an acknowledgment that the political ground on which he had been so successful had changed. It is not enough any longer to win just by virtue of being the choice of the 60-plus people who comprise the Republican Town Committee.

Last summer, political chatter about Tesei’s local future reached a crescendo when he accepted gubernatorial candidate and New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart’s offer to be her running mate. In all his years in politics, Tesei had never been considered a serious candidate for higher office, even though he had an unblemished track record and led the town that provided much of the financing and many of the candidates for state and federal elections.

His decision to accept Stewart’s offer caught even his closest supporters by surprise. Then, just weeks later, Tesei himself was surprised when Stewart abandoned her gubernatorial race and chose to seek the number two job herself, leaving Tesei to fend for himself. He was not given serious consideration for the lieutenant governor’s nomination.

Then, on election night 2018, Tesei watched with his fellow Republicans as the party continued to lose its steel grip on local elections. This time, Democrats won two of the four races for the state Legislature, seats the GOP had held for decades, and in the case of the state House, for more than a century.

Many Republican’s blamed their local losses on the divisiveness fostered by President Donald Trump. No doubt there was an anti-Trump factor, but an unintended consequence of Trump’s 2016 victory was to convince many people, men and women, Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, that they had to engage in the political process.

On the same 2017 night Tesei secured his narrowest victory, more than 70 new members won election to the RTM. The 230-member citizen legislature works in obscurity, and goes into elections without any identified party affiliation. It is not unusual for several of the RTM districts to be short a member or two.

The resurgent interest in local politics was the loudest signal to Tesei that his tenure and candidacy would come under unprecedented scrutiny in the 2019 municipal campaign and election. Members of the RTM are steeped in the mind-numbing minutiae of town government and its finances. They are, by and large, the most informed voters in town, and are eager and ready to put their newly acquired and hard-earned local knowledge to action in the upcoming campaign.

Had he run, Tesei would have faced serious questions about his refusal to confront the widespread toxic contamination of playing fields and parks in town. The many audit reports of town departments that show laxness and carelessness in such basic processes as cash management would not have reflected well on his ability as an executive. His futile struggle to implement an effective harbor management program while sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in mooring fees would also have provided ample fodder for his opponent.

Tesei’s decision not to seek re-election was clearly a difficult one. Elected office has been his life since he was 18 years old and the youngest person ever elected to the RTM. He said as recently as last October, in response to a question after a speech, that he would seek re-election. He walked that statement back several weeks later, after, I suspect, he did not get the reception or support he expected from party leaders. Once he said he was reconsidering his decision, Tesei promised GOP leadership he would make an announcement by February.

In the days leading up to his announcement, every Republican I spoke with said they thought he would not run again. But several moves on Tesei’s part had some people second guessing themselves. First, he sharply and publicly criticized the Republican-led school board’s decision to choose a new school superintendent from outside the district instead of giving the job to hometown favorite and acting superintendent Ralph Mayo. And, the budget he proposed included dollars for a firehouse in northwest Greenwich and $8 million toward a new GHS football stadium. Both of those projects have rabid supporters.

But in the end, Tesei opted not to put himself through a grueling campaign. I suspect that the last thing Peter Tesei wanted was to run the significant risk of losing an election. Not only would it have been politically embarrassing, but, because of Greenwich’s arcane method of electing its leaders, the losing first selectman candidate often becomes a selectman. Sitting on the Board of Selectmen as the powerless representative of the minority party should not be wished on anyone, but it would be particularly galling to someone who had spent the previous 12 years calling all the shots. Now he will go out a winner, and what is better than that?

Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.

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